Heidegger's Glasses by Thaisa Frank

8/10 An ambitious and fascinating look at the collapse of the German Reich.

Heidegger's Glasses, by two-time PEN award-winner Thaisa Frank, offers an ambitious and fascinating look at the life of a group a translators, living in a bizarre underground compound, during the collapse of the German Reich at the end of World War II.

The Third Reich's strong reliance on the occult and its obsession with the astral plane has led to the formation of this “Compound of Scribes” and the translators are responsible for the answering of letters written to those eventually killed in the concentration camps.

Into this covert compound comes a letter written by eminent philosopher Martin Heidegger to his optometrist, a man now lost in the dying thralls of Auschwitz. Heidegger's letter sparks a series of events that will ultimately threaten the safety and well being of the entire compound.

I have already mentioned that I found this book to be ambitious and I think that this is why I found my reading experience to be a little mixed. There was much that I liked a great deal but also certain points that left me a little confused. Heidegger's Glasses is a book that you should certainly read and therefore make up your own mind - I say this because I believe that no two readers will have the same experience. 

After I have read a book I normally ask myself two simple questions - Am I glad I read it? Have I gained anything positive from reading it? On both counts I would say yes without any hesitation. Despite its dark and upsetting themes it is a book that still manages to leave one full of hope, and reliving the horrors that were experienced by so many during this time in our history made me extremely relieved that my family exists in far, far safer times. Whilst reading Heidegger's Glasses I spent a great deal of time reading up on the concentration camps and the experiences of those who survived. This is another feather in this book's cap - any book that makes you research history in greater detail is worthy of great commendation.

Much of the book takes place within the aforementioned compound of scribes. Built by a famous architect, it is a setting that cannot fail but capture the imagination. I do not know if it had any basis in reality and this where Thaisa Frank shows herself to be a very fine author – I was never sure whether what I was reading was history or fiction, so cleverly are the two merged together.

This brief extract is useful at further describing the compound and of showing Frank's writing style:

“There was a rose-coloured cobblestone street lit by tall gas lamps. There was a canopy of fake sky with a sun that rose and set, and stars that duplicated the constellations on Hitler's birthday. There were mahogany doors and wrought-iron benches. The mine was sequestered by a narrow road and concealed by a shepherd's hut.”
Heidegger's Glasses

Another strength was the poignant inclusion, at the beginning of each chapter, of the letters written to those eventually killed in the concentration camps. Initially these are heart braking, being as innocents with no idea of the horrors that awaits them. Here is an example:

“Dearest Mishka,
Please don't worry about us: The children are fine and the food is delicious – thick soup with dark bread. There's also a beautiful forest here. They're taking a group of us on a walk in a few minutes. You'll have to join us, even if we won't be here to welcome you.
Heidegger's Glasses

Unfortunately there were a couple of things that held back my full involvement in the book. The main problem was that I felt there was a lack of clarity as to exactly it was the scribes did and why they were doing it, it just didn't seem to make complete sense. I kind of got the gist but never fully understood it. The other downside was that I, as someone who has never studied philosophy in any way of form, felt two things: one was that I was missing something really important due to this lack of understanding and two, that I felt slightly alienated, that the book wasn't really written for me and that it was perhaps more for scholars.

But even so, despite possibly missing some of the book's most profound points, I found the reading experience extremely rewarding. It contains some genuinely excellent and moving moments and the blending of fact and fiction is done seamlessly with great skill.

As part of the further research I did I came across a comment made by a survivor from one of the extermination camps. She mentioned that nothing made her happier than hearing a child say they were bored, as it meant that they were safe. The next time that I heard my four-year-old daughter utter that very phrase I felt a thrill go through me at the knowledge that she was indeed a very safe and very lucky little girl – and it Thaisa Frank and Heidegger's Glasses that I must thank for this more insightful outlook. I would recommend this book to all but highly recommend it those with an interest in philosophy. It is an excellent debut novel and I look forward to reading Ms Frank's future works.

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